Staying Power

The Chimeras are the Tempe band that would not die

The unofficial bio for the Chimeras has all the stereotypical ingredients of a rock 'n' roll miniseries: alcoholism, drug addiction and rehab, chronic depression and suicide. It's not a happy tale, but after nearly four years in development, the plot line finally seems to be aligning with what the band calls "the right path."

"The Chimeras are an underdog band," says guitarist Pete Milner, "and we're lucky to be alive."

Lead singer Lawrence Zubia can hardly disagree. "There's been a lot of shit that could have sank any sane person into getting a day job and quitting the whole thing."

Quitting is one thing the Chimeras haven't done. At Rosita's, a central Phoenix Mexican restaurant that's been a favorite of Zubia and his brother and bandmate Mark since childhood, the air over the table is filled with the overlapping chatter of Chimeras members. Bassist Scott Andrews is animatedly describing the previous night's hectic Green Day concert, which he witnessed from backstage. Drummer Gary Smith is talking about his recent stint as a juror in a child-abuse trial, and Milner is rehashing that day's final exam at ASU.

Suddenly, Mark Zubia pulls the plug on the conversation.
"Wait, wait, wait," he says. There's a mariachi song playing over the restaurant speakers. "Listen to how this changes ... right ... here."

The Zubias grew up listening to their father, Raoul, who played mariachi almost every weekend. Lawrence and his father performed together at KZON's annual Christmas show in December 1994.

The musicians all listen to the song on the radio, utter a collective "hmmm," and then fall back to their earlier conversations.

Right now is a good time for the Chimeras, and they probably know the difference between good times and bad better than any other Valley band. The group recently released its first album, Mistaken for Granted, and is closing in on a record deal. A West Coast tour with Dead Hot Workshop is planned for the near future.

The band was born early in 1993. The Zubia brothers--fresh from dismantling their former band, Live Nudes--teamed up with bassist Scott Andrews, drummer Mark Riggs and original Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins, and quickly became known for a style that combined Hopkins' three-minute-pop brilliance with the Zubias' soulful, blues-influenced rock. According to Mark Zubia, they took the name "Chimeras" from a Greek word that described a "she-woman fire-breathing beast, with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a serpent."

The Chimeras rocketed onto the music scene. Just a few weeks after the band materialized, it became one of the most-booked and best-recognized ensembles in Tempe. The band's first gig was before a capacity crowd at the now-defunct Edcel's Attic. In record time, rumors were bouncing off the barroom walls that the Chimeras would be the next band signed out of Tempe.

But the Chimeras seemed to fall apart as quickly as they came together. Hopkins abruptly left the band after a discouraging performance at a music festival in April 1993. Riggs quit because of personal problems. Bookings plummeted and dragged the band's morale down with them.

"We went through five months without another guitarist," remembers Mark Zubia. "We were very depressed. Pete [Milner] has told me how depressed we looked when we played."

"For four months, we paid for our rehearsal shed out of our own pockets," adds Andrews. "And then we'd all just go there and sit looking at each other."

After six months of limbo, Milner filled the hole that Hopkins left. The band members collectively cajoled Gary Smith--who was playing with Swamp Cooler--into sliding behind the drums.

The reconstituted Chimeras quickly started writing new material, and within weeks the band once again was a staple ofclub listings. New Times named the Chimeras Best Alternative Band of 1993.

In December of that year, however, the bad times returned with a vengeance. After suffering through several years of alcohol abuse and severe depression, Doug Hopkins killed himself. Hopkins had remained friends with the band, even after leaving. It was Lawrence Zubia who discovered Hopkins' body in the guitarist's apartment early one Sunday afternoon.

Performing was no escape from grief. Hopkins had written a large portion of the Chimeras' material, and every set the band played brought poignant reminders of his suicide.

Then, after years of his own excessive drug and alcohol use, Lawrence finally arrived at what he terms "the crossroads." He found himself fighting the same problems that caused Hopkins to shoot himself.

"I could not go any further," Lawrence says. "It came to a decision of whether I was going to continue my life like this or not continue my life at all.

"Now I look back and think, 'How did I do all of the mathematics?' Like, it would be a Thursday; I'd think, 'I gotta play tomorrow. It's midnight. Okay, I can take 14 of these pills, and then by six o'clock tomorrow evening, I'll start feeling somewhat okay. I'll drink four beers. I can play.'"

Fortunately, Lawrence checked in rather than out. He enrolled in a 28-day program at a west Phoenix rehab center for chronic relapsers, the kind of place that requires residents to wake up at six in the morning to do laundry and other daily chores.

"It was like boot camp," Lawrence says.
Although Lawrence's bandmates were supportive of his decision to take a monthlong hiatus and get clean, his peers in rehab were not so supportive of his determination to continue as a rock musician.

Mark made it clear to his brother that he would still be part of the band.
"And this is what I was telling the people in rehab," Lawrence continues. "But they're telling me, 'You can't go back to the band. That's the worst place for you to be!'

"My family couldn't come see me. I couldn't have outside contact because the people in rehab thought I was in serious denial. I kept telling them, 'No, I'm ready to quit doing drugs. I'm not ready to quit playing music. Those two things are not synonymous.'"

Lawrence successfully completed the program and immediately rejoined the band, which experienced a creative catharsis on his return. And Lawrence stayed sober.

"In rehab they teach you about the dysfunctional family, and I think the band is like a family," Lawrence says. "And this band--regardless if I was the person who was self-destructing--we all went through it. So, spiritually, I'm on top of the game now, and it improved the band. Not only because of me, but because the whole unit went through it."

The rest of the Chimeras agree the band's material is notably stronger now that Lawrence isn't using drugs or alcohol. Lawrence says the difference is sober songwriting.

"When you're drunk and you write a song, you may think, 'Hey, that's a great song,' even if it doesn't have a hook, doesn't have a good chorus or there's no segues," he explains. "But there's more things that go into writing a song than bleeding all over your guitar.

"I think the real inspiration for me to stay sober is what happened to Doug," Lawrence continues. "I felt sorry for myself for a long time because of drugs and alcohol. I really pitied myself. Now it's like: How fucking hard is it to play music with a purpose?"

But if Hopkins has remained an inspiration for the Chimeras, his pop influence has faded from the band's music. All but three of the songs Hopkins wrote for the band have been excised from the Chimeras' repertoire, and none of the late songwriter's work appears on Mistaken for Granted.

"Obviously, Doug Hopkins and the Chimeras wrote a lot of good songs, and his influence is still with us," stresses Milner. "He was a great guitar player and a great musician. But if anyone thinks we're up there trying to ride on Doug's songs, they should understand that we're a new band since then."

The Zubias' songwriting style has started to accommodate more of a blues/rock format and even a twist of the traditional Mexican folk music they heard as children.

"My brother and I have been blues-based writers," says Mark. "Doug was more pop, and we went to that pop thing. Now I think we're back to somewhere in the middle. We can take what we learned from Doug and apply it to what we do now."

So far, so good. Mistaken caught the attention of Morty Wiggins, vicepresident of Bill Graham Management, the promotional entity behind the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop. Wiggins and the band's lawyer, Fred Davis (son of Arista CEO Clive Davis), plan to shop the Chimeras around, confident they can get the band a record deal.

And so the Chimeras recently returned to the studio to record a demo tape produced by Gin Blossoms guitarist and longtime friend Jesse Valenzuela. The demo was cut at the Vintage recording studio in Phoenix, a small, white building that looks more like a VD clinic than the studio where the Gin Blossoms recorded their latest single, "Till I Hear It From You."

Despite the potential that is crackling in the air, the Chimeras have come to realize that there's more to staying together as a band than cutting record deals.

"Recently, I realized that if I can get up and play three times a week, if I never get to reach the other goal, I could do that for the rest of my life," says Andrews.

"Breaking up?" Smith asks.
"Shooting each other?" Milner remarks.
"I think we just crossed the threshold of Normal Land," says Lawrence Zubia.

"It goes in waves," Lawrence continues, smiling. "Right now is a good time for the Chimeras. It happens like that. Catch us next April when we're playing a Saturday night at Long Wong's and everybody is down the street watching some other band.

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